Clap Your Hands For Wallace Johnson
As I noted before, Ponderosa Stomp #9 hits New Orleans this weekend. From the HOTG angle, the bookings that have got me ready to pony up a hunk my meager civil servant’s pay are three of the city’s fine, if nearly forgotten singers: Charles Brimmer, Wallace Johnson, and Willie West. As far as I know, only Mr. West is regularly active as a performer, and still recording! He’s had somewhat of a resurgence over the last year, at least on the other side of the Atlantic. But Brimmer and Johnson remain obscure, and deserving of more attention. Lil’ Buck and the Top Cats from right here in Lafayette will be backing them up onstage. I’ll also be interested in hearing Ms Joyce Harris, who was one of the few artists to appear on Fun, Eddie Bo’s blip of a label back in the mid-1960s, and versatile multi-band leader, Earl Stanley. Another of my Gulf Coast faves, Barbara Lynn, will be there, too, along with many other worthy acts. Just gotta give props to the Stomp supporters and organizers, the Mystic Knights of the Mau-Mau, for making all of it happen - not only the concerts, but the seminars, film series, and record show - and for having it on a weekend this year, meaning that I can go for the whole thing (though my schedule was probably not their main consideration!).
Of course, Willie West has been the subject of a big feature here, as well as some updates; and I discussed Charles Brimmer and some of his music last month and had hoped to do one or two more by the weekend; but I ran out of time (see me post-Stomp). Before that, though, I've got to devote a segment to Wallace Johnson, as I haven’t done anything on him before.
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Wallace appealed to me because he sang like Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, but not quite as bluesy. He had a great, emotive voice; when he sang you could feel his sincerity. - Harold Battiste, quoted in the notes to More Gumbo Stew.
My introduction to Wallace Johnson’s first recordings came via the release of the Gumbo Stew CD series on Ace (UK) in 1993, which included the sides of his only single for AFO Records, plus two of his unissued tracks, all produced and arranged by Mr. Battiste, who we have been hearing a lot about lately for good reason. On first hearing, I was taken by Johnson’s distinctive voice, strong and controlled, yet easy on the ear. There is a pleasant personality to it that seems designed for making pop R&B records. Lee Dorsey is another local singer who had that kind of natural facility. But Johnson's additional ability to delve into deeper, more soulful material should have given him a competitive edge. As commercially viable as his voice seems to be, it remains a mystery to me why he, unlike Dorsey, has made precious few records in his life and never really had a sustained career as performer, either.
Major details of Johnson’s life and limited career are known because, fortunately for us fans and amateur researchers, Jeff Hannsuch interviewed him back in the late 1990s and did a short feature on the singer in The Soul of New Orleans. Most any information you’ll find about him, including most of what is here, is based on that source, though I have added a few other tidbits I’ve found along the way.
To summarize Hannusch, Johnson arrived in New Orleans in the late 1950s after a stint in the service, having grown up in Napoleonville, about an hour or so drive West of the city. His singing background was mainly church; and, as a teenager in the early 1950s, he got his inspiration to be a professional entertainer from seeing the great blues shouter, Roy Brown, perform. Other than some group singing he did while in the service, Johnson really had not performed much when he came to town in his early 20s, already married with children. So, to get some technical preparation for his goal of a singing career, he enrolled in Houston’s music school, which was located on North Claiborne Avenue near Esplanade, just a few steps outside of the historic and culturally rich Treme neighborhood.
Not long thereafter, wanting to make a record, Johnson went to Imperial Records' main man in the city, Dave Bartholomew, still the major producer and talent scout in town. For reasons unknown, Bartholomew was not interested in giving him a shot. So, Wallace tried the Specialty Records office, located upstairs in the same building that housed his school, and auditioned for Harold Battiste, who had been doing A&R for the California-based company. But Battiste had no choice but to decline, too, because Specialty was preparing to pull out of New Orleans. Instead, he told Johnson that, if he would bide his time, he could record for the new label Battiste was planning to start, to be run by and for local musicians and artists, All For One, AFO.
Once AFO got up and running in 1961, the partnership had an immediate #1 R&B hit on just their second release, “I Know”, by a young discovery, Barbara George, who Jessie Hill had brought to them along with Lawrence ‘Prince La La’ Nelson. The first release, Nelson's "Getting Married Soon", also charted, making things look very promising for the company. Due to the flurry of activity that these successes entailed, and because of the many other artists they were signing, Johnson did not get a recording slot until 1962, cutting the impressive sides of his very first single, along with two other worthy tunes.
He told Hannusch that all four tracks were cut in one long, overnight session at the small studio Joe Ruffino had behind his offices at Ric and Ron Record, which Battiste had access to because he also worked for Ruffino as a producer/arranger; and the AFO house band played on numerous Ric and Ron recordings. That ensemble backed Johnson that night on all the tunes and was comprised of the founders of the company: John Boudreaux on drums, Peter ‘Chuck’ Badie on bass, possibly Battiste on piano, Alvin ‘Red’ Tyler and Nat Perilliat on saxes, and Melvin Lastie or trumpet or cornet. Allen Toussaint, who knew all the players well and used some of them on his productions for Minit, was also there, although he did not play that night, according to Johnson.
“Clap Your Hands” (R. Richard)
Wallace Johnson, AFO 308, 1962
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
This is another one of those coulda-shoulda tunes that had all the ingredients of a hit except the one most necessary to the gamble, luck. What’s not to like about such a cleverly arranged, well-performed effort? After the opening, party-starting two bars of stand-alone, broken-up second-line drumming, Johnson joins in for the next eight, singing the first verse, then the horns hit hard on the turnaround, and the rest of the band comes in on the second verse. The remainder of the song lives up to the brilliantly engaging lead-in, piling hook upon hook. Battiste worked “Clap Your Hands” out of the ever-present New Orleans popeye groove of the period, but with enhancements. It’s a bit more upbeat, with emphatic, punchy horns, and great gospel-style piano comping, with everything playing off of Boudreaux’s fine proto-funk on the trap set. Dancing of some form or another is the default response to hearing this for the first or 500th time. And Johnson’s exuberant voice sounds so right, too, down to the howl at the fade - like he was born to sing it.
Reynauld (a/k/a Renald) Richard, described by Battiste as “kind of a hustler - you might call him a talent scout”, wrote “Clap Your Hands”, based on the children’s song, “If You’re Happy And You Know It”. His lyrics celebrate the love of a woman using expressions of joy from church, while the music was a happy hodgepodge of sing-song simplicity, gospel rave-up, and R&B bounce. That formula echoed an R&B classic that Richard had earlier co-written with Ray Charles,“I’ve Got A Woman”, which coupled lyrics about the charms of a woman to a gospel tune. In his talent scout mode, Richard had found Lee Dorsey singing to himself in an auto body shop, recognized his raw talent, and got him his start making records. So, Johnson's impressive take on Richard's number certainly seemed to bode well that he too could score a hit.
In addition of his vocal gift, Johnson also wrote the other three tracks he cut for AFO. “Peace Of Mind”, the B-side of #208, a mid-tempo quasi-waltz with more broken drumming patterns, allowed him to use sustain and precise melisma to effectively emote. Unreleased until the Gumbo Stew CD series, “Private Eye”, a fairly standard popeye number with clever lyrics about hiring surveillance to keep track of his significant other, could have been a marketplace contender; while the straightforward, slower “A Love As True As Mine” was definitely standard-issue flip side material, though it he sang it well enough.
Bad timing was the simple undoing of Johnson’s recording debut. Although AFO had a national distribution deal with Sue Records, after they scored big with Barbara George, they hit a roadblock. In this oft told tale, Sue owner Juggy Murray conspired to lure George away, convincing her to end her contract with AFO and sign with him. Once he accomplished this in 1962, he dropped AFO’s distribution on a contractual technicality, depriving them of both their major seller and an outlet for their products to markets in the rest of the country. Of course Johnson was just one of many AFO artists who were casualties of this subterfuge, as the company could not be sustained on just local sales. AFO’s team cut their losses in 1963 and headed out West, leaving many tracks on the shelf, including Johnson’s.
Having moved back to his hometown soon after recording those tracks, Johnson started gigging regularly around the area. Only later did he learn of the fate of AFO. It would be several more years until he came back to New Orleans; and, when he did, in 1965, evidence points to him having recorded a one-off single, “Looking For Lee”/“True Love Was Never Meant For Me “, as J. J.Wallace for the Booker label (#500/501), as noted by Sir Shambling, who provides audio of #501, a bluesy ballad with shaky accompaniment. It definitely sounds to me like it has Johnson’s voice on it. But of more significance, the singer made it a point to re-connect with Allen Toussaint, who he had met the night of his first recording session. In Bill Dahl’s fine notes to the Sundazed Get Low Down two-CD overview of Sansu productions of the 1960s, Johnson says that, at the time, he had a day-job driving a cement mixer in the city, and after work would often go over to Toussaint’s house, hang out, and lobby to get a record made.
Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn had just formed their new production company, Tou-Sea, soon to change names to Sansu, and were working with Lee Dorsey at the start of a string of his hits for the Amy label. They would also sign a number of other quality artists such as Betty Harris, Diamond Joe, and Eldridge Holmes. Toussaint kept the persistent Johnson in mind; and finally brought him in to record, cutting four tracks, three in April of 1967, with the other having been done the prior November. As Johnson pointed out to Hannsuch, his vocals were overdubbed onto music tracks that had been produced earlier, which was the way Toussaint was rolling by that point. The songs, all written by Johnson, appeared on two singles for the in-house Sansu label, distributed by Bell Records.
“Something To Remember You By” (Wallace Johnson)
Wallace Johnson, Sansu, 467, 1967
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
The top side of his lead-off single, “Something To Remember You By” had a sauntering, mid-tempo popeye-esque groove with pretty much a four to the bar drum pattern and some occasional subtle syncopation. The fairly standard arrangement and instrumentation benefited from Toussaint adding his own signature piano flourishes, linking the sound back to his work for Minit as well as to various of his more recent productions for Lee Dorsey. But his solo on the break was so low-key, it almost doesn’t register. To my mind, as decent as this production sounds, it was not an attention grabbing new start for Johnson, falling fairly short of the freshness and good energy of AFO’s “Clap Your Hands”. Johnson didn’t give himself much vocal range to work with, either. So, if I may humbly second-guess Toussaint/Sehorn here, I think they should have opted to plug the other side.
“If You Leave Me” (Wallace Johnson)
Wallace Johnson, Sansu 467, 1967
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
Getting past the somewhat deceptive intro, which sounds like a ballad is coming on, this tune really was pretty similar in pace and structure to “Something To Remember You By”; but Toussaint improved on the groove by having the drummer put the emphasis on the two and the four beats, opening a nice, hip-swinging pocket for everything to work from. Johnson got more into his vocal, too, giving it some juice, bending notes, and going up into his falsetto several times. As with the first song, I find the instrumental break, on organ this time, too understated (it's better on the ride-out). But, as a whole, I think this side had the edge in appeal over the one designated for radio play. Of course, your brain may decode it differently.
Any perceived advantage Sansu had over other local labels in getting it’s records distributed nationally did not work for this single, nor for many of their other releases, really. The reasons could be debated for over beers for days on end; but whether or not the wrong side got the push on #467, it did not take off. In 1968, Johnson’s second Sansu 45 (#476) “Baby Go Ahead”/”I’m Grown”, was released and fared no better. I still don’t have the vinyl on that one. But I’ve heard all Johnson’s Sansu sides on the Sundazed set; and, if you don’t have them, you can at least hear “I’m Grown” via the YouTube link.
“Baby Go Ahead” seems to have been out of the same mold as “Something To Remember You By”; but despite a strange little broken up intro, it proved to have a stronger arrangement and delivery, with the ensemble pumping out the groove, Toussaint turning in a suitably tricked-out organ solo, and Johnson responding with some hard-nosed singing. I can see where they might have been going toward the drive of an Otis Redding number with that one; and while he is no Otis, Johnson certainly rose to the challenge. Meanwhile, “I’m Grown” casually shuffled back to popeye-land, and again didn’t offer a big range for Johnson to play with, but was still engaging as Toussaint tossed off some rolling piano professor action, and guitarist George Davis spiced it up with his dexterous string-bending.
After his lack of commercial impact on Sansu, Johnson’s career went quiet for about five more years. Then, in 1973, Sansu Enterprises brought him back for another 45 that was promisingly leased to a national label.
"I Miss You Girl" (Wallace Johnson)
Wallace Johnson, RCA 0177, 1973
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
"On My Way Back Home" (Allen Toussaint)
Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio
At the time of this recording, Toussaint was producing at a studio in Atlanta, GA, while the partnership’s new studio, Sea-Saint, was being finished at home. Johnson told Hannusch that he did a split session there with Aaron Neville, who cut vocals for the Mercury single that included “Hercules”. For Johnson’s half of the session, he sang two promising numbers, the mid-tempo “I Miss You Girl”*, his own composition, and "On My Way Back Home”, an effective ballad written by Toussaint, which came out on RCA and would be the final single of his career.
Johnson handled with ease this nice slice of Southern soul to which Toussaint's arrangement added touches of subtle syncopation and an instrumental interlude that lent the song a bit more substance. Generally speaking, as on this tune, the weak spot in Johnson's otherwise enjoyable writing efforts was that they came up short on the dynamics and structure needed to take them to the next level. Meanwhile, on the other side of this 45, Toussaint's rarely heard, melodic, gospel-influenced piece proved to be the perfect vehicle to bring out Johnson's emotive, resonant expressiveness.
While Neville’s “Hercules” had the Meters, or most of them, on the backing tracks, it is not exactly clear who played on Johnson’s sides. I suspect that, rather than the Meters, Toussaint probably used some local Atlanta talent who worked out of the studio, although, it sounds like his piano work. There may have been some other New Orleans players on hand as well; and I'd like to know. So, any further information most certainly will be appreciated.
When this record too failed to make waves, Johnson for the most part called it quits and moved back to the bayou, performing very little and working various regular jobs to keep house and home together. He did not return to New Orleans until later in life, after the passing of his wife, and again got the bug to record. In the mid-1990s, he had connected with some local musicians and asked his old friend, Toussaint, about the possibility of making a demo. In a telling indication of the man’s regard for Johnson, he not only gave him the go-ahead to use Sea-Saint for the project but even offered one of his songs. After hearing the result, Toussaint asked Johnson to be a part of the new NYNO label he was starting with a New York backer, soon thereafter producing Johnson’s classy CD, Whoever’s Thrilling You, released in 1996. Containing mainly Toussaint songs, a few of Johnson’s, and one cover, it was critically well-received, but did not make Wallace Johnson any more of a household name, or even get him regular gigs after the initial interest died down, sad to say.
At last report, he was living in Atlanta, slated to appear at the upcoming Stomp, of course, and still looking for new recording opportunities, which I hope he can find, because it’s not too late for a comeback, until you can’t come back anymore.
*“I Miss You Girl” can also be found on the grapevine CD compilation, Crescent City Soul Patrol, and probably downloads, too, of course.